Mental Health issues are enjoying increased awareness and attention in recent years, but on World Mental Health Day in Guelph, an event hosted by Mayor Cam Guthrie focused on one area of mental health that still struggles to get a lot of attention, suicide and suicide prevention.
The forum entitled “Preventing Suicide: Let’s talk about it”, and the accompanying information fair, was organized by the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo Wellington; Spark of Brilliance; Torchlight; Homewood Health Centre; Family Counselling and Support Services for Guelph-Wellington; and the City of Guelph.
Unlike past years, there was no Q&A because the topic of conversation was so sensitive, but people were encouraged to reach out to the speakers afterward if they had questions. There were also people standing near the exits of the council chambers who were wearing lanyards that said,”Talk to me” in case the subject matter got too much for anyone in the audience.
The three speakers each talked emotionally and candidly about their experience with mental health and suicide, and shared their insights with those in attendance.
“When I stuffed and ignored, I imploded.”
“We tend to have a lot of comfort talking about our health from the neck down. That’s the easier topic for a lot of folks, but when it comes to talking abut health from the neck up, stigma gets in the way,” said Scott Grant, a clinical social worker who works with suicide prevention groups. He knows from what he speaks because he suffered from his own mental health issues.
“As a facilitator, I’m asked to balance two schools of thought. The first is my professional training as a social worker, and the second is the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of my lived experience, and my ongoing recovery,” Grant said. “I bring the two together, and I’ve found that sharing my experience is a great way to wonderfully connect with people and break down barriers.”
Grant explained his journey, starting when he first realized he needed help while he was an undergrad in university. He said that if you had looked at him at the time, you never would have guessed what was going on under the surface, and that he was someone dealing with depression.
Still, despite knowing that, it was hard for Grant to admit that he needed help.
“Counselling was something I did to others, I wasn’t a client, I was going to be a therapist,” he said.
Grant outlined five things that got him through, approaches that helped him deal with the worst of times as he struggled with mental health, and continue to help him today. Among his tips is to realize that what’s good for the body is also good for the mind, so things like getting the right amount of sleep, the proper diet and exercise. You also have to work to avoid getting lost in your thoughts by not overthinking things and just doing it, and you have to find the right person to connect with, even if that means going through nine therapists till you find the right one like he did.
“Until I landed on someone that understood me, and got me, and that I felt safe with, that’s when my recovery got in to high gear,” he said. “Sometimes finding a therapist is like buying a pair of jeans, they can be really nice jeans, well-intentioned jeans, but they’re not a fit for you.”
“My mental health crisis and diagnosis has been a blessing in disguise,” Grant said. “I look back now, and I’m glad it happened, because I think it’s made me a better person and a better therapist, and there are are probably somethings that I never would have discovered in my world if I had never had my mental illness. There is hope.”
“This is not your fault.”
“Those were some of the very last words we received in writing from our son Steven who died by suicide on February 10, 2013,” explained Myrna Hutchison, who’s turned her tragedy into a call to raise awareness about suicide prevention by founding the advocacy group, #GetInTouchForHutch.
Hutchison’s son was 18 years old when he took his own life while away at university. One of the most stinging aspects of the tragedy, according to Hutchinson, was how she, her husband, and her surviving son didn’t see any signs that Steven was experiencing issues.
“Whatever it was that Steven was battling ended up making him feel that there was no other choice in life, but to end his own,” she said. “I often try to think about what we could have done differently, how we could have helped, or what we could have done or said to Steven if he had only reached out to tell us, or recognized that he was struggling.”
Hutchinson added that Steven wasn’t someone who talked about what was bothering him, and didn’t let his inward emotions show on the outside. He didn’t withdraw from his friends, stop going out, or start giving away cherished positions, which are a few of the typical telltale signs that someone is thinking about suicide. He was also not diagnosed with a mental illness, and lead, what might be considered, a “regular teenager’s life,” listening to music, playing video games, or playing sports.
“From our learnings along this grief journey, we know that there are many that hiding their feelings behind a mask, and for us that mask was the bright and beautiful smile that our son always seemed to share so willingly with others,” Hutchinson said.
“Today I come to encourage us all to be okay with not being okay, and to know that it’s okay to start taking about it,” she added. “We need to bring the silence out of the shadows, shout when we are angry, cry when we are sad, and smile and laugh when there’s a reason to do so.”
“We are all living human beings with beating hearts, and we have to give each other the permission to know that it’s okay to not be okay,” Hutchinson said.
“We have to be able to talk about it.”
Cecilia Marie Roberts has been working in mental health for over 15 years. She’s leading the creation of a suicide prevention framework for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo Wellington, and she said that while we’re more comfortable dealing with depression and anxiety, there’s still a long way to go with talking about suicide.
“Suicide is still something that has a heaviness to it, there’s a fear to it, and negative stereotypes that lead to stigma, it’s really quite widely misunderstood, to be perfectly honest,” Roberts said. “The reality is that if want to address suicide as a community, we have to be able to talk about it.”
Roberts said that starts with understanding suicide, and understanding that the act itself is not a mental illness, but a complex behaviour. Multiple factors come into play depending on the environment, but suicide is about pain, and that pain looks different for everyone. This might have to do with mental health, but it can also do with loss and grief.
“I think we associate loss and grief with death, or losing a loved one, but loss comes into our lives so much more than that: the loss of a job, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a child as they go off to college, and you’re missing them, the loss of who you were going to be in the world, maybe,” Roberts explained.
“When those pains start to add up, and when they start to overwhelm us, and when that sense of ‘it’s just too much to carry’ gets heavier and heavier, and we lose sense that things will likely shift or change, then we’ve lost hope, and that is the environment in which thoughts of suicide grow,” she added.
Roberts said that we have to treat suicide like we would any disease of the body or of the mind. For instance, two out of three people never seek help for their feelings of suicide, but can you imagine if two-thirds of people refused to get help for cancer, or heart disease?
So how do we change things? Language is important.
“One of the ways we often express suicide is to say that someone ‘committed suicide’, and I’ve never heard anyone say that someone ‘committed cancer,’ or ‘committed heart disease.’ We say that they died by cancer, or they died by heart disease,” explained Roberts.
“Suicide is not a sin, nor is it a crime, so it’s really important we drop that language, and we shift our language to say that someone died by suicide or attempted suicide. It’s a little thing, but it means so much,” she added.
Roberts said that her work for the local CMHA, the Here 4 Hope campaign, will soon be bringing forth a “whole community approach” where everyone will have a role in creating more awareness and eliminating stigma. There will also be a website with resources and tips that will focus on workplace wellness in Wellington County and how that can be expanded elsewhere. Also, there will be a first-of-its-kind post-vention team, which will respond to individuals touched by suicide.
The annual mayor’s event on World Mental Health Day was started by Joe Young in 2000, with this year’s forum being the 20th annual edition.
The full remarks from the three speakers will form the basis of next week’s edition of the Guelph Politicast, which you will be able to download on your favourite podcast app at iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and Spotify.